Who is Jamshid Sharmahd and what is the alleged US terror group 'Thunder'?

Iran reveals secret operation against “US-backed terror group," but Tehran may be seeking a scapegoat or propaganda operation to embarrass Washington.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wears a protective face mask, during a virtual meeting with lawmakers in Tehran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wears a protective face mask, during a virtual meeting with lawmakers in Tehran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran said on Saturday that it had detained Jamshid Sharmahd, who it claimed was the leader of an opposition group. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence was the first to claim it had targeted the “Thunder terrorist group,” which it alleges operates in the United States.
The group, called “Tondar” in Farsi, is not well known. The claims raised questions about when Iran had carried out this operation and who had been detained. Images posted online showed a blindfolded man. A video was then posted alleging to show him in custody.
The initial statement by Iran claimed that the Thunder terrorist group was involved in “armed operations and sabotage from the US.” The accusation that its activities were based and coordinated there is part of Iran’s attempt to portray the US as supporting terrorism.
The US last year stepped up sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and numerous groups and individuals linked to it. The US killed IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani early this year. Iran appears to be saying it has now revealed a US plot.
Iran claims the Thunder group is also named the Parliament of the Kingdom of Iran and is a monarchist group. It says the group has killed 14 people and injured 215 over the years. According to Iran’s media, the US previously accused Iran of trying to kill Sharmahd in Los Angeles in 2009.
This is how the reports of the Iranian operation unfolded:
First, news of the detention and operation was released just after noon in Iran. A website called “Borna News” published photos of the detained man around seven in the evening, about five hours or more after the first reports. It was not clear where they got the image or if it was authentic. TRT, Sputnik and France24 all picked up the earlier reports in Persian.
Moscow-based Sputnik claimed the Thunder group was founded in 2004 under the leadership of Fathallah Menhujri with the goal of overthrowing the regime in Tehran. Supposedly, Menhujri, who also went by the name Frode Folland, disappeared; Mr. Sharmahd was then targeted by Iran.

FRANCE24 SHOWED an image of the alleged 2008 attack carried out by the group. This report says Iran already executed three people in 2009 for that attack. It notes that, according to Iran, the group sought to carry out new major operations. It was going to blow up a dam in Shiraz using “cyanide bombs” and target a book fair and also the mausoleum of Khomeini.
The report links this detention operation to one that targeted Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was apparently lured back to Iran in a “complex operation,” the IRGC claimed in October 2019. He was then sentenced to death in June of this year. France24 said Zam was living in Paris. Iran sometimes releases details of various arrests years after they happened. For instance Iran executed Mahmoud Mousavi-Majd recently but he had been detained years ago.
According to Tasnim News in Iran, the group carried out a bombing in Husayniyah Sayyid al-Shuhada in Shiraz killing 14 in April, 2008. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi, who is soon to be an ambassador, has also released a statement. He thanked the “Imam Zaman” or clandestine intelligence forces, for the operation. He accused the “terrorists” of being stained with the blood of Iranian people. He also strongly protested the US government. “This [US] regime must be held accountable for supporting this terrorist group.”
Tasnim revealed the same details put out by France24, including that the group was founded by someone whose whereabouts are unknown and that Sharmahd is a more recent leader. It also accused the group of planning to bomb a hotel in 2009 and trying to acquire chemical or biological weapons.
The Tasnim report also claims the group may have targeted tanks and oil facilities, and wanted to target a Russian consulate in Rasht. It may be that Iran is tying the group to all these sites to not only create better relations with Russia but also to pin the blame for recent explosions in Iran on this group.
Reuters notes that Sharmahd’s detention was not confirmed by the group and that the Thunder group called it an “abduction.” An attempt to find references to this group prior to Sharmahd’s detention reveals only a few results in Persian media. It is mentioned in 2012 at Mehr news as one of many opposition groups that have carried out assassinations and attacks in the Islamic Republic.
A 2011 post claims that there is a photo that was obtained showing Iran’s far-right politician Mohsen Razaee meeting with the Thunder group. This far-fetched claim appears to want to link Razaee, now a key member of the Expediency Discernment Council, to the group.

MANY QUESTIONS remain about this operation. Did Iran abduct Sharmahd from a third country? Some have suggested that country could be Turkey or Iraq. How would Iran have done that during the COVID-19 crisis when people are often not traveling internationally? Reports say that Sharmahd had connections in Germany.
Tehran has carried out operations in Europe in recent years, including attempted assassinations, but illegally kidnapping someone in Europe seems to be a bridge too far for Iran. There was an attempted assassination of an Iranian-Kurdish dissident in June in the Netherlands.
It appears that Iran’s timing is an attempt to send a message to the US: that Washington backs “terrorism.” Iran has concentrated on an obscure group to spread this message. It often targets relatively small and obscure groups in such operations.
For instance, in September 2018, Iran fired missiles at a Kurdish group near Koya to show off its abilities, and then did the same by targeting ISIS after an attack in Ahwaz. It tends to also focus on dissident groups in Europe, even if they are not involved in major dissident activities.
Iran has shown in the past it is willing to use forced confessions, kidnappings and also timed “detentions” of activists to showcase its abilities and try to embarrass its enemies. It frequently claims, for instance, to have discovered some US or “Zionist” plot. Whether this latest plot is more of the real variety or more propaganda from Tehran, using a scapegoat, is not clear.